QEP Spotlight: Barry Spurlock

Published on March 29, 2022

This is another in a series of interviews with staff, faculty, administrators, and students across campus promoting the goals of EKU’s Quality Enhancement Plan. The current QEP, Read with Purpose, calls for Eastern to develop critical readers through the use of metacognitive strategies. Building on the past QEP, which focused on developing critical and creative thinkers, this effort represents the University’s commitment to institutional improvement and provides a long-term focus for faculty and staff professional development and student learning.

This installment in the QEP Spotlight series features EKU Associate Professor Barry Spurlock, from the College of Justice and Safety. 

1. In what ways have you been involved with the EKU QEP, Read with Purpose?

I was part of EKU’s Spring 2021 Professional Learning Community (“PLC”) on critical reading, and then served as a faculty presenter in the Spring 2022 EKU Teaching and Learning Innovation series workshop, Critical Reading Instructions Across Disciplines.

2. In what ways has QEP professional development impacted your teaching and learning?

I have considered myself a good critical reader for quite some time.  It was a journey that took years of trial and error to obtain strategies and techniques, as well as repetition to ingrain them as practices.   It was not common to teach critical reading strategies and techniques in general education courses when I was in college, much less within professional disciplinary courses. So, when I became a faculty member focused on teaching specific disciplinary classes, I emulated what I was accustomed to and did not consider inclusion of specific, critical reading instruction in my classes.  After all, I viewed my mission as being focused on preparing students to be successful in a career where they have workers’ lives in their hands, and we need every moment of classroom instruction time for accomplishing this purpose. 

As I gained more experience as a teacher, I noticed patterns of truly good students not making the connections they should from reading.  At this point I knew my subconscious, unstated view on teaching critical reading in my disciplinary classes had to change.  I started to view the “teach the discipline” mindset as being analogous to arguments proffered about not having time to exercise.  While I still need to act upon my “I don’t have time to exercise” mindset, I have abandoned the “disciplinary courses do not have time to teach remedial skills such as critical reading mindset;” even if its subconscious and unstated. I knew investing the time to teach critical reading within the safety discipline had to make students more productive and increase the mastery of subject matter more than laboriously plowing through discipline materials; just like pausing to exercise each day makes us more energetic and productive.  Engaging in the PLC on critical reading helped me turn this realization from an idea into specific strategies to employ in the classroom.  Being part of the semester long, cross-disciplinary collaboration with other faculty and staff prompted us to dive deep into literature on critical reading, share ideas and explore teaching innovations.  Most importantly, it allowed us to generate specific, individual strategies we could implement in our classrooms.

3. What impact is the QEP having on student learning in your discipline?

As a result of my engagement in the QEP, I have implemented several, specific instructional activities tailored for both my undergraduate and graduate courses.  At the undergraduate level and in courses wherein students read professional journal articles in addition to the assigned text, I invest time at the beginning of the term to show them my reading annotation practices and strategies, as well as provide explanations for pause points.  These pause points hallmark important points during the reading process where students should stop to consider important questions about pre-requisite information, unfamiliar terms, and most importantly, author perspective.  Students learn that annotating comments and formulating questions are key activities in critical reading.  After demonstrating my approach to critical reading, students are assigned periodic reflection papers that assess critical reading.  One of the most important assessments of critical reading is a student’s ability to formulate meaningful, substantive questions.  For each reflection, students must submit questions they have as a result of the reading.  I want students to know that the purpose of assigning reading is not just to push information.  I want them to know that another purpose of assigned reading is for them to think critically, and that having thoughtful questions to explore after reading is likely one of the best products of their reading efforts.

Having the knowledge and ability to spot legal landmines is very important to occupational safety and health professionals.  Because storytelling is one of the most impactful methods of instruction, I assign case law reading – true stories – so that students learn about analysis and application of the law to certain circumstances.  For my classes that involve reading case law, I have utilized the Socratic method of instruction since arriving at EKU over eight years ago to gauge student preparation and comprehension, and to deliver instruction on specific topics.  Students have always responded well to this method of instruction, and they overwhelmingly rate it is as superior to traditional formative assessments such as quizzes.  But, one thing that I learned in the QEP – student realization of purpose - allowed me to improve upon this existing method. As a result, students are now asked to explain to their classmates why the case was assigned as reading. Asking this all-important “why” question of students during Socratic delivery causes them to pause and think on a higher, big-picture level.  Being able to verbally explain the purpose of a reading reveals a higher degree of mastery.  Because students know to anticipate the “why was this case assigned question,” they read with greater purpose.

In graduate level courses, often smaller in size, my students now experience more of a seminar delivery format.  As part of this format, students act as discussion leaders on assigned reading.  For professional journal articles, these students also construct follow up questions, but must also deliver constructive critique (positive and negative) of each assigned reading.  Additionally, and in many of my graduate courses, students are assigned a management or leadership book that isn’t discipline specific.  I start each class with a brief, student-led discussion of the assigned chapters and the application to the safety discipline. At the conclusion of reading the book, students write a review of the book wherein they are charged with explaining the purpose of the book being assigned in the course.  In essence, they explain how application of the broader leadership and management principles discussed in the book advise and aid the safety professional in practice. Collectively, at least 30 minutes of each class is spent reflecting on the reading from the week.  This approach has greatly improved the quality of student performance on assignments, and particularly those involving case studies.

4. How has the QEP benefited the campus community?

Undoubtedly, the QEP has made faculty keenly aware that preparing students to be critical readers is an important, cross-disciplinary effort, and such is imperative for our students’ success as well as the University’s brand.  The professional development opportunities to faculty through the critical reading QEP are superb.  When one considers that critical reading is such a fundamental skill for post-secondary education, they may be some of the most important ever offered at EKU.

5. How will you continue to promote critical reading in your courses, discipline, or across the university?

I will continue to include specific instruction on critical reading as well as assessments of students’ abilities in my courses.   Most importantly, I plan to become a student of critical reading innovations and plan to continuously improve my efforts as a professor. I will also seek out ways to collaborate with other faculty across EKU on critical reading initiatives.